Mary & Ann Primiano-Rock. Ctr_1
Wearing My Best
by Mary Leonard

I’m wearing my best, a blue cotton
Mother embroidered with cross-stitches,
bordered with rickrack. It’s June.
I dry my hair on the back porch
brushing my curls upside down
until they shine silver in the window,
my face a dark negative. Mother, always late,
powders her nose and plays with lipsticks.
Jubilee Cherry, Bermuda Coral? Not wanting
to miss the 10:25, I swirl on one Capezio toe
and announce, in the voice of my sister,
Coral for our movie star! Mother picks
a pique bolero, searches
for her keys and money hoarded
from her household allowance. I hold
the screen door, urging her on,
while watching groceries delivered
to Mr. Graham who rises
from his patio chair and with high-held glass
waves in the boy from Gristede’s.
I only imagine the inside of a house
I will never enter.

The train’s cool straw seats soothe my legs.
Women board at Bronxville and I envy
their smooth blonde flips, their leather purses.
To eavesdrop on their gossip, I curl small,
like a rabbit. Mother makes lists:
sheets from the white sale at Altman’s,
lingerie, something crisp and white for sister,
a dress from Bloomingdale’s basement,
and my hair cut at Best & Co.
The conductor calls out the stations,
each syllable a song
Tuck a hoe Tuck a hoe

The train sways, hypnotizes
and as we rise above city streets,
my eyes flicker, close, open to scenes
from old-time movies: large women making beds
with billowy white sheets, thin men in undershirts
cooling on stoops.

In Altman’s we march straight past the jewelry
to brass escalators. On Floor Two, Lingerie,
I enter a cave of lace and silk
and feel the satin of scenes
only glimpsed in Doris Day movies.
Mother and I examine the sale table, touching, opening,
searching for the gown we’ll know when we see it.
We both circle my sister’s wedding, I copying
brides from magazines, Mother adding to the trousseau
and her own dreams. We find two,
not too frilly, no décolletage, white and pristine.
Mother checks the fabric, the seams, showing me
at nine what the inside of a garment should look like,
and I see my mother, not much older than me,
sewing in dark rooms, lit only by sequins.

On a double decker Fifth Avenue bus, I memorize
cabbage roses on wide picture hats
and pale lilacs burdening the sides of bowlers.
We pull the cord at St. Patrick’s, visiting quickly,
only lighting one candle before leaving incense
for Main Floor perfume. In Best’s waiting room,
windowed to Rockefeller Center, I watch and want
to build my own skyscraper with blocks,
but feel too shy, too old, easier to snuggle
close to Mother. Mr. Joseph cuts
my bangs two inches above my eyes, complains
about my curls, too many, too thick,
and I wish for straight hair he could turn
with his curling iron. I hold tight
to my pink and white balloon, Best & Co.,
ignoring whispers of cute from huddled salesgirls.

At Schrafft’s the waitress wears all black, even her oxfords,
only her white apron and red curls distancing her
from Sister Pauline. We always order BLT’s on toast,
tea for mother, a black-and-white soda for me.
I save the ice cream for Mother’s stories, today, her wedding,
not the ruffled organdy dress, not the white gardenias,
but after, climbing the steps on West Forty-Eighth,
Dad’s brothers draped like mannequins around the table,
the windows, uncurtained, gray with the smoke of cigars,
and a silence she had never known. Mother’s eyes glaze,
but I’m too young for the words she needs. I squirm
in my seat and whisper, Let’s leave.

At Bloomingdale’s we find six print dresses, cheap,
in Mother’s size. We laugh like school girls
when the dress is too tight or the ruffles bigger
than Mother’s head. We find one, a pastel,
that makes Mother look like
the movie star she should be,
but it’s overpriced. She decides to send it C.O.D.,
saving on the tax, but doesn’t feel right, I know,
so I don’t insist on French crullers,
only orange lifesavers for the train ride home,
the time we review the day, peeking at purchases,
wishing we didn’t leave behind the pink peignoir.
Mother says, after the wedding, she’ll shop just for me.
I dream of a camel hair coat, of penny loafers, of blonde hair.

My eyes close and open: a dark man resting
on a window sill lifts a can to his lips, my father
on our back porch hammers at a loose board,
reaches for his beer, and across our street, the Grahams
hold tightly to glasses of iced tea.
I step onto their patio, awnings flutter.

The conductor chants
Crest wood Crest wood
I am cold. I hold my mother’s hand.

SOURCE: “Wearing My Best” was published in the author’s chapbook A Girl (Pudding House in 2007).

PHOTOGRAPH: The authors as a child on a shopping trip with her mother.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I loved shopping with my mother when I was a kid, and in this poem wanted to capture that unique experience of the late fifties — but I was also interested in what it was like living in suburbia and not fitting in. When we went shopping and on the train, I felt very close to my mother and very protected from the elitism of Westchester. I think the first draft started in a workshop at Bard College.

Mary 1Reading-Yonkers, NY, 5-17-2014-No 2_1

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mary Leonard is an Associate of the Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard College. She has published four chapbooks of poetry at 2River, Pudding House, Antrim House Press and RedOchreLit. Her work has appeared in many journals, such as the Naugatuck Review, Red River, Earth’s Daughters, Hubbub, and most recently in Chronogram and Blotterature. She is working on a new chapbook Living In the Hyphen and a novel, Italian Ice.